Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rebecca Gratz & the Barbary Pirates

A young woman safely at home in Philadelphia in 1804 could still be touched by violence half a world away. The Gratz sisters had been friends as teenagers with the Caldwell sisters and their brother James. The girls mysteriously fell out with each other, but James continued to call on and to escort the Gratz's around town and remained a great favorite with all three sisters at home.

In late 1798 or early 1799, shortly after the death of his father, James became a midshipman in the US Navy, perhaps because his family needed the income. The Gratz sisters thought the Navy was not the ideal place for their friend. Rachel, the youngest, regretted that "his situation in life is too little calculated for a mind like his." Although a career as a naval officer was an honorable aspiration for a young man, the Gratz's knew it was -- of all the gentlemanly professions -- the most physically challenging and dangerous. They worried whenever he was at sea, and their anxiety must have been heightened when the United States went to war against the Barbary Pirates.

The Pirates were really agents of several rogue states in North Africa, whose rulers demanded huge payments so that American shipping might ply the Mediterranean without fear of their depredations. President Jefferson sent the American Navy to put an end to the extortion in 1801. The Americans would claim victory in 1805, but before that, in August 1804, Lieutenant
James Caldwell was killed in action in the harbor at Tripoli. When the news reached Philadelphia a few months later, Rebecca and her sisters mourned deeply for their lost friend.

(Much of the information in this post is gleaned from letters among the Gratz sisters and their friends from 1799-1804 in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Virtually every book on the First Tripolitan War gives an account of the heroic death of Lieutenant Caldwell.)

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